The value of calling in sick

February 15, 2014

Amid all the reports about NBC-TV sportscaster Bob Costas having to bow out of coverage of the Winter Olympics due to a raging case of pinkeye, The Washington Post made an astute observation – Costas is an example of an American who actually called in sick from work.

More of us should follow his example.

Despite those who claim Americans are devolving into lazy “takers” ready to hit the couch, gobble Cheetos and contentedly languish on the public teat, we are actually one of the more industrious of the world’s nations. Our noses are firmly affixed to the grindstone. We exceed most of our European allies in the time we spend at work and have less vacation time on average than our counterparts across the Atlantic – in fact, there is no legal guarantee in the United States of paid leave. There is also no guarantee of paid leave for illness.

Though some employers will offer a handful of days for employees to shake off their colds, flu, or whatever other ailments bedevil them, it’s estimated that 38 percent of American employees are not eligible for sick leave in any form whatsoever. This means that around 40 million of us trudge wearily into the office, or to the construction site, the restaurant or wherever else we toil, and punch the clock when we should be curled under an afghan, trying to soothe our sore throats or runny noses, calm our stomachs or nurse our aches and pains.

This state of affairs is not doing these poor, debilitated workers any favors. They are far less productive than when they are hale and hearty, and, of course, they also run the risk of passing their sickness along to colleagues, making the workplace a kind of teeming, germ-incubating Petri dish.

The phenomenon has, in fact, been given the name “presenteeism” – the opposite of absenteeism – and has become the object of chin-stroking over the last several years among social scientists and business gurus. They’ve calculated that it costs businesses $150 billion per year when their employees drag themselves to their posts when they are under the weather. Aside from those who turn up because they will otherwise lose a day’s pay, some believe showing up despite being ill is a way to demonstrate dedication and commitment – despite their maladies, they’re still at their desk, making phone calls or finishing the financial statements. The sluggish job market has also served to make a good many workers reluctant to call in sick, lest it somehow redound against them when it’s time to figure out to whom to give pink slips. Because some workplaces have been beset by so much bare-bones paring in the years since the Great Recession began, some employees are also in the unlucky position of having pressing deadlines to meet, with no option to work at home, and no one else in their workplace to fill the gap.

Ezra Klein, a now-former blogger for The Post, hit the nail on the head four years ago when the country was beset by a flu epidemic – denying sick leave “isn’t just inhumane policy. It’s stupid policy.”

And workers who are lucky enough to get sick days should avail themselves of them. Sure, calling in sick when you have a hangnail isn’t advisable, but making your compatriots wonder if they should don Hazmat suits as you cough, sneeze and wheeze your way through the day isn’t either.



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